Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cold Turkey Movie Review: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, Go Crazy If You Don't

Cigarette smoking, though legal, is looked upon as an ugly vice with ugly consequences (lung cancer, premature aging, second-hand smoke, etc.) To make a satire of it takes courage and adult sitcom savant Norman Lear (“All In The Family”, its many spinoffs, “Sanford & Son”, “One Day At A Time”, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) did it in the form of the scattershot, brilliantly cruel yet honest fable “Cold Turkey”. If you know Mr. Lear’s work, you know the battlefield. If not, hold on to your seat.

P.R. man Mervin (an underhanded Bob Newhart, a bit away from his first sitcom) convinces his mute, feeble, wheelchair-bound employer, Hiram C. Grayson (comic character actor Edward Everett Horton, his last role here), the head of the Valiant Tobacco Company’s to do a good things, despite being a producer of bad things, a la dynamite and Nobel Prize creator Alfred Nobel. The “capper”, as Wren calls it, is to offer $25 million to any US town if its citizens can quit smoking for thirty days. This puts the company’s board of directors in a shit-fit, but Wren calms them down with the fact that no group can go “cold turkey” and they approve of the deal.
However, they didn’t count on the 4,006 citizens of the dying Iowa hamlet, Eagle Rock, taking the challenge. Led by the religiously ambitious yet vain Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke, miles away from his titular sitcom and “Mary Poppins”), the people go through withdrawl syndrome. The results? Let’s say whoever makes straight-jackets will be richer than the tobacco companies.

Based on “I’m Giving Them Up For Good”, an unpublished novel by Margaret and Neil Rau, “Cold Turkey”, like the animated sitcom “The Simpsons” (note the similarities, people), takes no prisoners in its narrative. Corporate greed; political, entertainment and news manipulation; the naivete, self-exclusion and self-exploitation of small-town America and the military-industrial complex (a colonel promises the installation of a missile factory) are targets, and Mr. Lear, who wrote (shared story credit with William Price Fox Jr.) produced, directed this yarn, is an expert marksman (and a World War II vet to boot). With a misanthropic tone, it’s understandable that United Artists, the film’s distributor, shelved “Turkey” for two years, but it’s a crime, due to Mr. Horton’s passing.

Lear has a nimble cast; some players would show up in his sitcoms. Mr. Van Dyke (who starred in the Lear-penned “Divorce, American Style”) is righteous to save his town but careless with his wife (Pippa Scott) who’s silenced by his pomposity while Mr. Newhart performs his signature buttoned-down mind routine with sly dog confidence and doe-eyed dopeyness. Other players include Tom Poston (Mr. Newhart’s second sitcom) as a rich, die-hard lush; Barnard Hughes (“The Lost Boys”, a recurring role on the aforementioned “Family”) as a nicotine-loving sawbones; Jean Stapleton (also of “Family”) as the mayor’s neurotic wife; Paul Benedict (“The Jeffersons”) as an anti-smoking zen buddhist; Graham Jarvis (the aforementioned “Hartman”) as an anti-“Big Government” wing-nut and (my favorite) Judith Lowry (also of “Hartman”) as a foul-mouthed, Commie-hating crone. Vintage radio comics Bob Elliot (real and sitcom dad of Chris Elliot of “Get A Life”) and Ray Goulding show up as walking parodies of famous newsmen (“Walter Chronic” and “David Chetley” may confuse young viewers, but there’s the Internet!!!). Lear himself has a cameo as a crying man, going without a smoke.

On the technical side, there’s d.p. Charles F. Wheeler, who captures the sweet rural look of Eagle Rock with some helicopter shots and wholesome, rural street shots (predating the opening sequences of Lear’s sitcoms) while editor John C. Horger masterfully employs quick-cuts, like Lou Lombardo on “The Wild Bunch”, when displaying the slapstick “withdrawl syndrome”gags (i.e. a husband slaps his wife while driving; a dog’s kicked (!); a bowler throws himself onto a lane, crashing into some pins, etc).  Award-winning composer Randy Newman (the Toy Story films, "Monk",) makes his film debut here with the ironic song "He Gives Us All His Love" that bookends the film.

Bottom line (to borrow a line from Mr. Wren): “Cold Turkey” is about how society can be so dumb. The only heroes are the town’s youth; “Eagle Rock, where’s your head?” one young man chants in a circle of protest as the town becomes a tourist trap and enjoys being one. Like most of society, its’ head in a hole that’s rank.  The youth are ignored, but, by the end, they have the last laugh. So will you.

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